We’re facing real, complex problems in Portland’s urban core, not enough consensus on how they should be addressed, and city and business sector leadership grappling with its ability to effectively help. However, despite the damaging narrative that “Portland is over,” there’s evidence of real, positive change blooming downtown.
That said, we have to accept that downtown Portland is not what it was and may change in ways we don’t necessarily expect. As we process the suffering that’s no longer deniable—the closures and foreclosures, and the staggering vacancy rates downtown—our best path forward may be to accept and embrace that we’re never going back. By doing so, we have a chance to create a better reflection of all our residents in downtown PDX.
This newsletter begins a three-part series to examine this topic, which is too complex and compelling to cover in one issue. Besides offering perspective on the many factors that have brought us to this point, this month’s chapter asserts that a thriving urban core is essential to our region, and that each of us can contribute to a constructive path forward, no matter how daunting the task may seem.
It’s not just one thing—or two, or three
While the challenges downtown faces are complicated, it’s also important to remember that many of them have been a long time coming and will take time to solve. Among COVID and the resulting mainstreaming of remote work, rising houselessness, divisive politics, racial reckoning and more, there’s not a single root cause—but the cumulative impact is real and cuts deep.
In the commercial real estate sphere, we spent years riding a construction boom, tearing down older buildings that once provided affordable housing and work spaces. We replaced them with over-priced mixed-use projects, while commercial rents skyrocketed, pricing out the same local restaurants and retailers that brought Portland such success even in the salad days. Concerns about affordability and disparities within our community were casting a shadow on our prosperity. And then…the pandemic tipped these growing challenges into crisis mode.
Our most marginalized neighbors took the biggest hits, and massive, overnight unemployment literally broke our state unemployment system. Houselessness spiked, exposing and exacerbating an already-brewing mental health and addiction crisis. And needless to say, the gridlock in local leadership hasn’t helped.
No downtown, no Portland
Since we’re all now in the business of hunting for silver linings, it’s heartening to see so many of our home-grown businesses expanding into the suburbs while they wait out the revitalization of Portland’s urban core. But suburban flights have consequences, as they fail to preserve the essential value and contribution a city’s downtown provides.
Metropolitan Portland is not, and should not be, a donut. We need a strong center for our city, as a whole, to work. We don’t have to choose between downtown and the ’burbs; a thriving city gives us both. The idea that a vibrant business climate wrapped around Portland can stand on its own doesn’t add up; by its very definition, a suburb is born from the growth of a city. If downtown dies, the entire metro area changes beyond recognition.
The journey back
Fifteen years ago, artists, musicians, makers and curators (many of whom had already been priced out of the Pearl District), were leveraging cheap space on the central eastside, and helped build one of the most creative and livable cities in the country. Those who treasure our scrappy, creative culture mustn’t abandon it because things get hard. Through many thoughtful interviews, Malia Spencer’s March 15 Portland Business Journal article inspires those of us who love our city to double down, look around and take any action—be it modest or grand—that reflects and promotes who we’ve become, and where we want to go from here.
Finding our new balance is going to take time, especially downtown. Hybrid work looks like it’s here to stay, and although people are trickling back, restoring the pre-pandemic demand for office space downtown will take longer than we want to contemplate; current employment density doesn’t come close to supporting the volume of ground-floor commerce that was taking place in 2019, nor will it for quite some time.
We need lots of creativity and energy to support uses that will make downtown a place we want to be. Recreation, creative expression, maker hubs, community spaces—any and all concepts that draw people downtown should be on the table.
If you’re a landlord or a broker, here’s an opportunity to look for those who are already here, and place your bet on a local business owner with a great concept—perhaps one who hasn’t gotten a fair shot in better economic times. Let’s invite new people to rebuild Portland’s identity by investing in our culture of innovation, incredible BIPOC and female entrepreneurs, and Portland’s signature grit.
Smaller, locally based tenants will show their appreciation, and if we return that loyalty to this next wave of risk-takers, we can find more equitable growth this time around. However, when we fill space with non-traditional uses, it’s also important to cultivate longevity. Marginalized businesses can move in and revive our downtown core, but treating them like placeholders and displacing them when demand returns will simply take us back to where we started in terms of equitability.
We can’t wait for someone else to start and finish this effort. We each have to find our place in downtown’s recovery. While we don’t have to agree how to revitalize downtown, we do have to accept it’s our work to do. Let’s take investment maven Rukaiyah Adams up on her inspiring 2022 TEDx Portland Talk invitation, and start our “love letter to Portland” by getting down to the business of fueling Portland’s next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs.
Next: In the coming months we’ll share specific examples of people and businesses that are taking steps to reimagine downtown their way. Get ready for some success stories, and please share yours with us. Good things will happen if we keep the conversation going!